Who’s that hiding behind the door and knocking stuff on the floor? Dr. Emily Weiss has just the thing for under-enriched kitties—both in the shelter and in their new homes.
You know the cat. He hides behind doors, waiting to pounce. He swipes at will. He hunts dust bunnies and finds his way into your soup bowl… He can be destructive, he can be reactive and he can be depressed. He may display in many different ways, but rest assured you can be safe in calling him bored-y cat.
While many places that adopt out dogs now regularly include enrichment recommendations for new dog adopters, similar advice for feline enrichment in the home lags behind. For cats who are restricted indoors, the likelihood that they will be under-enriched is high—even higher than for dogs, who are almost guaranteed some outdoor time with tactile and auditory/olfactory/visual enrichment at a very minimum.
Lack of enrichment in a home can lead to behavior challenges. These include withdrawal, stereotypic behavior (pacing, chasing, self-mutilation) and sensitivity to stimuli such as touch and movement, which can result in biting, clawing, etc. While it has not been scientifically quantified, I would venture to say that a minimum of 25% of behavior challenges expressed by indoor cats are the result of under-enrichment.
We as a field have lots of tools, resources and instructions for feline enrichment in the shelter setting. If you have a copy of the text Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff, open it to the chapters focused on feline housing and feline enrichment, where you will find tons of great ideas and information. Cruise our ASPCApro.org pages with the search term ‘enrichment’ and you will find more ideas and opportunities.
Whether the bored-y cat is in shelter or the home, I find one of the best forms of enrichment to be food-dispensing enrichment tools. These are great for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, we can almost guarantee interaction (it only counts as enrichment if the animal engages!) because all dogs and cats eat—and all dogs and cats naturally forage and hunt food. Food-dispensing tools are also so effective as clients can easily fit them into their schedules, and can quickly and clearly see the benefits.
The recipe is pretty simple. Instead of feeding the cat out of a bowl, feed out of a food-dispensing device. For cats who have never used a device before, pick something really easy. A wiffle ball or a PVC pipe with lots of holes and some good smelly food inside will do the trick. Cats should be hungry enough to give the toy a whack (literally and figuratively), so replacing the bowl with the device is important. Ideally the cat is fed twice a day, guaranteeing at least two 15- to 30-minute sessions of concentrated work time. This is also a great time for the new adopter to better understand the cat’s Feline-ality, while the cat puzzles his way through dinner.
Recently an article was published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery focused on food puzzles for cats. This is a really fabulous resource for utilizing puzzle feeders in the home. From determining a good starter puzzle feeder to videos and even a slick handout for owners, this article is the soup and nuts!
Feeding out of food-dispensing devices in the shelter—taking care to monitor that the cat is utilizing the device and getting needed nutrition—provides an opportunity to ensure daily enrichment. It can also be a great way for folks to see cats interacting, and also sets them up for success with food puzzles in the home. And providing food puzzles in the home is one of the best ways to appease the infamous bored-y cat.
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Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB
ASPCA Vice President, Research & Development
Dr. Emily Weiss’ work at the ASPCA involves developing programs and processes that focus on impact on animal welfare. In her previous work as a behaviorist, she developed training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. She has also developed assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Dr. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
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